House of Usher (Roger Corman / U.S., 1960):
(The Fall of the House of Usher)

Edgar Allan Poe, visualized to lend class to American International Pictures and a classical vessel for Roger Corman's modernist anxiety -- the collaboration is momentous and the red carpet is appropriately laid out, a tracking shot keyed up to Murnau by Floyd Crosby, who started with Tabu. The guest (Mark Damon) rides through mist and cobwebs to the Usher home; he comes for his love, Madeleine (Myrna Fahey), yet her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) forbids her from leaving the mansion. Lord Usher is a spectral presence, wraith-like in crimson coat and sparse, white 'do, yet he is also a moody artist, and, like many a Gothic auteur, suffers from a "morbid acuteness of the senses": his dynasty boasts a magisterial lineage of rot, which he illustrates to the confused groom in a series of sinister portraits situated between Edvard Munch and Tim Burton. The house decays no less than the patriarchy, the edifice moans and periodically shifts its weight, the chasm outside threatens to engulf it; it isn't just a matter of falling chandeliers but of "the air itself," a system erected atop catacombs which, like the world Corman repeatedly annihilated in no-budget sketches, must be destroyed before it can be purified. Madeleine assumes her place in the Usher lineage through an arching pan around her coffin, where Corman includes a detail from Ordet before brusquely sealing the lid; the sequence fades with a closeup of her name on the tomb as a gasp becomes a scream. The pull towards surrealism, for the most part kept rigorously just half an inch under a skin sumptuous enough to excite a Visconti, explodes in the bravura dream passage, then finally in the inferno that welcomes utter devastation and culmination, vengeance earthly and supernatural (repressed flesh reborn through madness, and "what lies beyond is something again"). The house of Usher falls, dazzlingly, and Corman spots in the rubble another template for maverick expression amid thrifty resources; Poe is thanked with a supreme graveyard tableau, upon which the author's words rests. With Harry Ellerbe.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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